Big Ideas for Busy People for Busy People


I’ll keep it quick.


1- Dealing with Disaster – Paul Biddinger

Natural disasters are more frequent nowadays than in any other time in recorded history. Compounding this, populations are concentrating more and more towards disaster-prone areas such as ocean shores and fault lines. How should we deal with these problems? Two ways: Practice (practice, practice) our emergency response procedures and encourage households to prepare themselves. The Boston marathon bombing was a tragedy, but it would have been more of a tragedy had local agencies had not been drilling mass-casualty response procedures for years. The average grocery store will sell out of it’s stock in three days if not continually restocked, and that is in non-emergency times. In emergencies food will quickly become inaccessible. So keep at least 3 days supply in your home at all times.

2- Video Surveillance: Enhancing Security Without Increasing Danger – Larry Kandell

Surveillance technology is everywhere. Think about it, your eyes and everyone elses eyes are surveillance tech (whoa man).  The latest in synthetic tech is just now disseminating through public spaces. This technology entails 360 degree cameras capturing HD footage at a dozen frames per second. Visual recognition software allows automatic identification and tracking of critical objects. A audience member asked the presenter to comment on the human rights issues surrounding the proliferation of advanced surveillance technology. The response: Everyone has a different set point wherein fair surveillance becomes an invasion of privacy. Leaders and citizens must have a constant dialogue about this as the technology spreads.

3- Dancing in the Age of Bionics – Elliott Rouse

This guy helped design a prosthetic foot that could could be used to dance. But it’s not like anyone missing a foot could pop this on and hit the dance floor. It takes a significant amount of research and calibration to allow the foot to responds to the needs of the dancer it was designed for There is no one-size-fits-all prosthetic solution, but we are getting there.

4 The End of History Illusion – Daniel Gilbert

People tend to drastically underestimate how much they will change in the coming years. Research shows that time drastically alters the values people hold and the ways in which they behave. The thing is, people rarely recognize how much change their future will bring. When surveyed most say they believe will change very little in the coming years, but when psychometric evaluations are used to track personality changes over time these same people often undergo dramatic personality shifts. The cause of this short-sightedness is the fact that it is easier to remember our past than it is to imagine our future. It is hard to creatively forecast how we might evolve in the coming years, it is easier to think about what we are and lazily cast our memories out as predictions. “Human beings are works in progress who mistakenly believe they are finished products”.

5 From a Magic Trick to the Design of Materials – Tadashi Tokieda

A clear cup is shown, coiled inside the cup is a length of chain. One end of the chain is pulled out of the cup and dropped, causing the rest of the chain to follow it out of the cup. But the chain doesn’t just pour out of the cup. The chain shoots out of the cup as if it was being propelled by an unseen source of power. Picture a powerful water fountain. The demonstrator says that people often point to the stars or towards computers to expound the wonders of physics. But there are simple yet awe-inspiring examples of physics everywhere around us. Someone from the audience asks how to go about finding these simple miracles. The demonstrator responds that you find the wonders of physics in the same way you find wonderful friends. Curiosity and persistence.

6 The Temporary Universe – Alan Lightman

Everything in the universe is temporary. Even the sun will one day burn out. The entire universe will one day (theoretically) be an infinitely diffuse cloud of near-nothingness. Why do humans so desperately cling to what is, cling to what can never be again? He posits two conclusions. The first is that we are deluding ourselves, we futiley cling to things we can never have. The second is that perhaps our longing for permanence is justified by forces in nature yet undiscovered, maybe we will discover a force that allows us to grasp the infinite which we long for. He says it’s probably just delusion.

7 How Did the Atmosphere Become Breathable? – Tanja Bosak

Oxygen, we need it. It makes up 20 percent of our breathable atmosphere. In the past it has been much, much lower. 2.4 billion years ago there was a “great oxygenation event” in which levels of oxygen on Earth’s atmosphere drastically rose, yet the levels were still thousands of times lower than now. 560 million years ago we see the first signs of life that likely needed oxygen in the atmosphere to survive. What caused the rise in oxygen? We have no idea. It is one of the most basic questions in the field of Earth sciences, but we do not know the answer to it.

8 Climate Change comes to Thoreau’s Concord – Richard Primack

The legendary American author Henry David Thoreau kept detailed measurements of the Concord Massachusetts changing natural variables. Bird migration patterns, dates of plants flowering, Thoreau’s measurements are the most detailed accounts we have of the natural world in the 19th century. Predictably, these variables have changed significantly in contemporary times. For example, flowers now blossom 10 days to 2 weeks earlier than in Thoreau’s time. Modern environmental scientists have a strong understanding of how global climate trends have affected birds and plants, how insects have been affected is now the hot area of research. Understanding how the behavior of insects will change is the missing link in forming a predictive picture of global climate change’s ecological impact.

9 Can Supercomputers Diagnose Heart Disease? Amanda Randles 

Imagine this. Your doctor is worried you are in risk of suffering heart disease. He takes a scan of your entire body through an MRI. This data is converted into a 3 dimensional computer simulation of your body and it’s entire cardiovascular system. One of the world’s fastest supercomputers runs a simulation of blood flowing through your body, virtualizing the individual physics of hundreds of millions of blood cells flowing over dozens of simulated years. This data allows doctors to determine exactly how your circulatory system might fail you and formulate a targeted prescription. Now imagine this, the FDA has already approved forms of this technology.

10 Addiction by Design – Natasha Schull

Slot-machines now make above 75 percent of gambling revenues. Retirees and women make up the majority of slot-machine users. What attracts people to slot machines with such fervor? The act of a using a slot-machine is solitary, continuous, and rapid. These three traits allow someone playing a slot-machine to enter a comfortably numb zone. These people do not play-to-win, they play-to-win-to-play. The act of playing is a warming sedative. “They are not interested in entertainment, they want to be totally absorbed and in a rhythm.” ( my thoughts: Facebook, anyone?)


Conversations With A Beggar


I had an interesting chat with a beggar today.

Perhaps “beggar” is a label lacking sensitivity, but beggar is exactly what this gentleman called himself. I think his approval on the matter is as legitimate as it gets.

I find myself in conversation with beggars more frequently than you might  think. If I’m wandering downtown and I’m feeling bored enough or high enough it is likely to happen. This particular encounter was worth writing about. I had been wandering downtown Somerville pondering where I wanted to eat, wandering without any particular destination or sense of urgency. The night was young and I was indecisive.

Like a couple who ruins a double date with ridiculous bickering, my id and superego ruin my nights eating out with ridiculous self-analysis. My internal monologue becomes a combat zone. The argument is about money and ethics and willpower and more often than not invokes Benjamin Franklin’s quote “a penny saved is a penny earned”.

My superego strongly believes that going out to eat is a waste of money. The superego acknowledges that I don’t make much money and that I need to live on a budget. If there is food at home to eat, there is no logical reason to go out. If there is no food at home to eat, than it is time to go grocery shopping. There is never a logical reason to go out to eat (unless someone else is paying for it, of course).

“But I feel like it” asserted my id.

“‘I feel like it’ is not a good reason to do anything”, countered my superego. “Sometimes I feel like slapping my friends when they say stupid shit. I don’t. But I certainly feel like it. Part of the burden of being human is feeling like doing all sorts of stupid stuff all of the time. Having the urge to do something in and of itself is not a justification to do that something. Sure you feel like going out to eat, but the result of doing so is that you have less money than if you ate at home, but you’re no more full or satisfied. Going out to eat is an illogical decision made by lazy people.”

“But I am illogical and being lazy feels awesome” the id said flatly.

That’s when a I noticed a squatting man in his mid 50s by the entrance of a Starbucks, he was looking at me

“Spare some cash for a meal? I don’t drink and I don’t smoke.”

Usually, I decline the requests of beggars. I do this for one reason, I don’t believe them. I’d like to think that if my travels ever carried me into a situation where a starving person asked me for food, I would give them food. It’s the decent thing to do. But as I’ve never been to a third world nation, I’ve never actually met a beggar who looked starving. This man was no exception. Yet today I choose not to ignore him. Why? My logic was this: If I can waste money on a going out to eat, I can at least spare this guy a dollar. This decision satisfied my superego’s need to feel like a charitable citizen, and my id’s need to blow my money away at every possible opportunity. I gave him a dollar.

He looked at me and said “Oh come on man, could you spare 5?”.

My initial and internal reaction was “Really bro? I don’t have to give you any dollars at all, take whats given to you and be happy about it”.

But this initial reaction was immediately contradicted by a much more rational thought. Why the heck shouldn’t he ask for more? The dollar I offered was already in his hand, I certainly wasn’t going to take it back and he knew that. The worst outcome that could come from his upsell was that he keeps the dollar he already has, the best outcome was that he gets more money. His question was a logical move. It was sound game theory.

My initial shock to his bold request had now turned to curiosity. “How often did this technique work?” I wondered.

So I asked him. And he told me that upping the ante sometimes worked, particularly if people were in a good mood. He stressed that he is always sure to tell people that he only uses the money for food, never for drinking and never for smoking. Then he mentioned something that piqued my curiosity even further. He said “You know, I’m a conservative so I don’t believe in asking the government for food stamps.”


I found this character trait to be very ironic, and immediately decided to challenge this conservative value of his. There are hundreds of corporate executives who make untold millions of dollars per year. The amount of money required to fund this man’s food stamps is flat-out negligible in the shadow of the monstrous amount money that is available in the American economy. I explained these points to him.

As he responded he continued to make eye contact with passerbys. He admitted that he held one exception to his anti-food stamp belief system. If someone uses food stamps as a way to better themselves, as a way to achieve some social mobility, than their use was acceptable. “Foodstamps are okay if you use them to reach your potential”.

“Why don’t you use food stamps to reach your potential?” I asked, in as non-judgemental of a tone as possible.

He continued to make eye contact with passerbys, there was a notable pause before he answered.

“I dunno”, he said briefly.

Before I could think of how to respond he changed the subject. “Do you see that cop over there”, he pointed to a police cruiser parked across the street “I think they are recording our conversation right now”.

I doubted whether the conversations of a beggar were truly a concern for the Somerville police department.

“Why would they do that?” I asked.

He said he used to beg in Cambridge and had never been bothered there, but since he moved his begging spot to Somerville he had been bothered twice by police. The police told him that begging was illegal in Somerville. He told me he planned to keep begging until they actually did something about it. “I’ve been begging for 15 years, 15 years I’ve been telling people no drinks no smoke. No one has stopped me yet”.

15 years. That’s a job. That’s a career. I asked if he was homeless, he responded that he was not. He lived at an elderly home for the disabled. I asked what his disability was. Was this too private of a topic for two people who had just met on the street only moments before?

Perhaps it was. His answer was distant and impersonal “That’s a good question. Maybe schizophrenia or something neurological. I’ve got something going on with my eyes too. I dunno”. It was becoming clear to me that my questions were disrupting him from a task, he was a man with a job to do, he had a living to earn. I was sticking around too long.

He said to a passerby “Spare some cash for a meal? No drinking no smoking.”

He was a salesman. Our business was done and he had other business to attend to.

I told him I didn’t want to interrupt his work any more and said goodbye. He gave no signs to acknowledge my departure. As I walked away I heard him again shoot his pitch to a potential customer. “Spare some cash for a meal?” No drinking no smoking?”.

I wandered a bit more until I finally decided on Chipotle. Why would I drop 8 dollars on a burrito (actually 10 with guacamole, another victory for the id) when I could have saved that money and just ate at home? I dunno.